A few months after I posted this story in 2013, I was inspired by requests to continue the story, and it has grown into the Caffrey Conversation series, co-authored with Silbrith. Before I could write the second story in this series, I needed to change the ending of this story, giving it an alternate ending. Popular opinion is that the alternate ending is better, and I agree. Therefore for readability I'm moving the original ending out to an appendix; you can still see that original ending if you're interested, but now it doesn't interrupt the flow of the story.
The Caffrey Conversation
Prologue: James Bonds
Burke residence. Thursday night. September, 2003. Two years before Peter arrested Neal.
"James Bonds?" Elizabeth read over her husband's shoulder as she handed him a beer. "That's quite a name. Does he live up to it?"
Peter Burke muted the baseball game as his wife sat beside him on their living room sofa. He flipped back a few pages in the FBI case file to find a black-and-white photo of a dark-haired man in a suit. "We picked that name because he's a bond forger. At the time we didn't know his real name, or what he looked like."
"But obviously that's changed," Elizabeth said. "Is this a recent photo?"
"About four months old. Why?"
"Well, he just looks awfully young to have such a thick file." She turned a few pages, reaching a bond certificate. "You've brought this file home, before."
"Yeah, about a year ago, when we got word of forged bond certificates being cashed. The bonds were supposedly forgery-proof. Then he went quiet. He popped up on our radar again about five months ago, with a series of cons, frauds, thefts, and forgeries."
"A renaissance criminal."
"He'd probably enjoy being called that," Peter said. "He seems to have a fondness for renaissance art. At least, that's what I'm gathering from the latest Interpol reports. He's been in Europe recently."
"If he's outside of your jurisdiction, why are you studying his file?"
"He'll be back. Neal Caffrey – we're pretty sure that's his real name – treats New York as his home base."
"Then you'll catch him," Elizabeth said matter-of-factly. When Peter sighed in response, she closed the case file and tossed it on the coffee table. "All right, clearly something about this Neal is getting to you. What is it?"
"This guy's smart. He's suspected of an impressive number of crimes but doesn't leave much in the way of evidence. It's not just a matter of catching him, El. We have to gather enough evidence to convict him. He's so charming that a jury will love him, making it vital to have overwhelming, irrefutable evidence. Even then, he'll probably get a light sentence. And you're right, he's young. He'll get out again soon and be back to his old tricks in no time."
Elizabeth stared at her husband a moment, and took him by surprise with her next question. "How do you know he's charming?"
"I've spoken to him, twice now. First was outside a bank; I had no idea who he was at the time, just thought he was a random citizen curious to meet an FBI agent. Then about a month ago he called my cell phone while I was on a stakeout. It should have been annoying. Hell, it is annoying, but for the wrong reasons. It seems like such a waste. With his intelligence, his talents, all of that potential... Why is he wasting his life on crime and eventual prison time?"
"Why don't you ask him? You know, the next time he calls. Have a conversation; find out what's motivating him."
"And what, reform him?"
"Well, not in a single phone call, no. But try to find out what it would take to convince him to change his ways. Offer him an alternative. You could use his talents, right?"
Peter put his beer down on the table. "You think I could convince this Caffrey kid to give up the international high life to be a CI? You think I could convince the FBI to trust him if he agreed to work with us?"
"Start small. Plant the idea that someone seriously believes he can be something other than a criminal. Maybe, someday, it will make a difference."
"Or maybe he would counter with an explanation of why he thinks crime is his best option. Which could give me the key to turning him around." Peter smiled. "That would be quite the conversation."
Chapter 1: Meet Me in St. Louis
New York City. Tuesday morning. Early December, 2003.
"You're still here?!"
Neal Caffrey stretched and took in his surroundings. The view that assaulted his blue eyes was nothing like the first class accommodations he'd grown used to on his recent trips to Europe. Lumpy futon. Was there really such a thing as a comfortable futon, or was that just a myth? Interior of a warehouse. Not a loft conversion, but an actual warehouse that just happened to have furniture in it. And sunlight streaming through the windows. No wonder Mozzie sounded freaked. He did not like for guests to stay overnight in his safe house. "Sorry. I just closed my eyes for a minute when you left to meet with Megan."
"Yeah, well that would have been 337 minutes ago. You said you were going to call Kate and then go."
A call that had gone unanswered. He'd tried calling a dozen times from Copenhagen, and she kept ignoring him. The plan had been to call one more time, and then to start searching some of her favorite haunts. Neal was surprised that he'd fallen asleep instead. There had been plenty of time to rest on the flight back from Europe yesterday, and he'd never suffered from jet lag. "I guess I forgot the second half. I'll get out of your way." He ran a hand through his black hair to look less like he'd just woken up.
"Actually, I'm going to take your presence as an omen that I was right to take Megan up on the opportunity she presented. It means I'll need to subcontract my prior engagement." Mozzie opened a hidden compartment in the sleek table he used for dining and scheming. He pulled out building plans and a plane ticket. "You like the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany; you'll be perfect for this."
That comment distracted Neal from the mystery of his unexpected nap. "Vintage Tiffany stained glass pieces are amazing, but difficult to hide, and too fragile to transport easily. The jewelry would be easier to take, but tricky to fence."
"They have a buyer lined up already."
"A crew based in Chicago. There's a client here in New York who wants three specific pieces from the Met's collection. Those pieces are currently on tour."
That explained the plane ticket. "I get it. Art is usually most vulnerable in transit, or sitting in a museum's storerooms waiting to be put on display. It's easier to bring back to New York than to steal it here. So I'm going to Chicago?" Neal wouldn't mind visiting Chicago again. He had fond memories of hanging out there, visiting their museums and perfecting his skills at forging IDs after he'd run away from home.
"My contact works throughout the Midwest. The museum they're hitting is in St. Louis. The crew includes a glass artist who created replacements for the pieces the buyer wants, and his job will be to pack up the originals so they don't get damaged. They also have a specialist to disable the security."
St. Louis. He supposed he should think of it as home, but to Neal it represented a network of lies he had escaped at 18. Going back was not something he'd considered. But this sounded like the perfect way to go back. To show them, figuratively speaking, what he'd become. "What's my part?"
"They need someone inside to help the artist pack and carry the goods. It has to be someone smart, in case there are complications, because the artist is new to the trade. Just graduated from reproductions to replacements, if you get my drift. And then you'll bring the pieces back to New York." Mozzie placed a brochure for the exhibit on the table and pointed out two vases and a lamp. "These are the items the client wants."
"I admire his taste, but these are bulky. I can't bring them back as carry-on baggage."
"That's why you have a one-way ticket. You'll take a commercial flight to Chicago tomorrow morning. There you'll get on a private plane. And you'll take that same plane back here. A pity you can't fly it yourself. Having a pilot involved increases exposure and reduces our cut, but Roland has a guy he trusts."
Neal's eyes widened in surprise. He'd heard stories about Roland, but never thought Mozzie would introduce him. "Roland? Isn't he the guy you referred to as your arch rival?"
Mozzie shrugged. "Anyone who's any good in this business is my arch rival at some juncture. The point is, he's good at this. He'll get everyone in place at the right time, with everything they need. If all goes well, he's just the wheelman. If there are problems, well, he handles it."
He handles it. Neal could have said the same of Mozzie, or Keller. They were the people you wanted around when there were problems. Resourceful, experienced, clever - exactly the kind of people an up-and-coming criminal should study, to stay on top of the game. "I look forward to meeting him."
"Good, because I already told him you were onboard. Let's take a look at the museum plans."
"You wanted to see me?" Peter Burke asked.
"Yes. Have a seat." Reese Hughes gestured to the chairs on the opposite side of his desk. "I know I said this last night, but I'll say it again: Good work with the Townsend case. We couldn't have arrested him if you hadn't figured out how he was spending the money he embezzled."
"Commissioning art thefts. We found the artwork in his home when we served the warrant last night. Last I heard he was making a deal to implicate several people who arranged or committed the thefts." Peter had been sent home at midnight, just as the interrogation was turning into a negotiation for that deal. One minute he'd taken a break to grab some coffee while waiting for Philip Townsend's attorney to arrive, and the next thing Peter knew he was being told to go home.
"That's why we're keeping his arrest quiet for now. We have agents bringing in many of the people Townsend named." Hughes smirked. "I know you weren't happy about being sent home."
Not happy? How about: annoyed as hell. "I never said that." At least, not until he was in his kitchen, telling El about his day.
"No, you're too smart to say it. But if you're half the agent I think you are, you're annoyed as hell and want to know why I shut you out." Hughes waited for Peter to nod. "I was watching the interrogation with Agent Wiese when she made an interesting comment, that you and Townsend have a lot in common. Both into sports, both of you studied accounting. You even have a similar build and coloring. Wiese said you did a good job of getting into his head, thinking like he did. She thought that contributed to catching him so quickly."
Peter turned this around in his mind. Wiese had a point, but he didn't want to get a reputation for arresting only tall, brown-haired, brown-eyed clones of himself. "I've caught plenty of criminals I had nothing in common with."
"True," Hughes agreed, "But it gave me an idea, and I wanted you to be awake and alert when I suggested it."
Awake, alert, and driven to prove himself, Peter thought. And Hughes didn't make suggestions. He gave orders. "You want me to go undercover as Townsend."
"The last theft he commissioned hasn't happened yet."
"That's what we'd learned right before you… Before I left," Peter said. He'd hated missing out on questioning Townsend about the details of his latest commission. But he had to admit Hughes had a point. He was thinking more clearly this morning. Last night he was just hoping to get a name from Townsend, but actually catching the thief in the act of delivering stolen goods would be much better.
"It's going down tomorrow, in St. Louis. He gave us a name of the person leading the crew, a Roland Villiers. Villiers has been on our Chicago office's radar for a while now. He hasn't met Townsend. Everything was arranged through an intermediary. But it seems there was a delay, some issue with forgeries that were supposed to be used in Detroit but got damaged en route, making this the second attempt. Townsend was impatient, said if he had to pay the same price for a late delivery he deserved something more. There wasn't time to forge more pieces, but when Villiers offered the chance to participate, Townsend agreed. He was going to travel to St. Louis Wednesday morning. You're going in his place."
Peter was interested, but had to ask the obvious question. "Why not send someone from the Chicago office?"
"They've pulled Villiers in for questioning half a dozen times in the last few years. As a result he'd recognize a lot of our agents. And if Villiers is smart, he's asked the intermediary what Townsend looks like." Hughes leaned back in his chair. "On paper, it's simple. We'll give you all the information we have from Townsend. Exactly what he commissioned and what he knows about the plans. You go to Chicago tonight for further briefing, then meet Villiers and his crew tomorrow. We'll have a wire on you. You'll be able to identify the members of the crew. If we're lucky, we'll get enough details of their plans to show up at the right time to arrest them with either the real or forged artwork in their possession."
"But that's on paper," Peter said. "In reality Villiers probably plans to keep Townsend as far as possible from the real action, while convincing Townsend that he's still involved enough to keep him happy and quiet."
"Right. And if you can manage your way through that obstacle course, when you get back to New York we'll talk about another suggestion I have in mind, to start up a White Collar task force."